Story — From the January 2020 issue

The Whale Mother

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As promised in the email she’d received, the shuttle was waiting at the curb outside baggage claim. It was just a minivan, it turned out, not the wheeled and finned amphibious contraption she’d been vaguely expecting from its mysterious name, SeaTac–Whidbey Island Shuttle. The shuttle’s doors were open; a driver was checking names off a clipboard. A frowsy older couple in matching rain jackets; a likely student plugged into her earbuds; and a very tall man, who was busily befriending the others with an eye, he told them cheerfully, to getting the seat with the most legroom. This turned out to be in the first row, while Leila wound up in the second, but the tall man, who had begun talking to Leila the instant his eyes lit on her, continued once they were seated, twisting his long torso to half-face her over his shoulder. “Coming home?” he asked, and his abrupt address paired with his singular physical presence surprised her into something like alacrity, a state she’d been so far exiled from for so long she hadn’t even remembered its name. “No,” she replied. “Are you?” And when he said yes, in fact he’d lived on the island at one point for more than ten years, the conversation went from there, simply bloomed and sent tendrils all over the minivan’s grimy interior as if there weren’t ultimately nine people crammed inside, including themselves and the driver. They’d had to interrupt themselves to listen with impatient politeness when the driver gave his spiel about schedule and safety.

Perhaps she hadn’t quite reclaimed alacrity. Information tumbled from the tall man, place names and business concerns and waterways; at one point he broke eye contact with her to look down at his phone, but before she could seize the opportunity to muster her focus he handed the phone to her, its screen displaying a three-masted boat. How beautiful, she said automatically.

Just the previous week she’d brought her sons home from Martha’s Vineyard on that island’s ferry, their first time visiting as a trio (she’d made mistakes there, also, forgetting to reserve parking in Hyannis, ending up paying three times the usual rate to a sailor-suit-wearing cabal of criminal Moldovans, as she called them, to the distress of her sons, who felt, rightly, she knew, that this was an insensitive stereotype), and when the van halted again, here, just as there, were the painted lines on the asphalt where the soon-to-be-passenger cars formed their columns to wait, and here just as there was a concession stand offering seafood standards, even New England clam chowder. Leila stood in line for a bottle of water and then rejoined the tall man, who had seated himself on the back of a bench. How long had it been since she’d had this sensation of instant camaraderie with a man? But in fact, she reminded herself, she’d once made friends with men all the time, when in her right mind, to which this trip had been meant to return her.

The tall man took from his backpack a very good-looking sandwich. Leila took in its toothsome-appearing whole-grain bread, its crisp lettuce, its fat slice of tomato, its strata of cheeses and meats, as the tall man with somehow fastidious wolfishness dispatched the sandwich in a very few bites, without dirtying his fingers, his clothes, or his face. It hadn’t crossed Leila’s mind to buy food while she stood in the line, and now she realized she hadn’t eaten since around eight the previous night—Eastern time—and it was now almost one on this coast, which meant it had been twenty hours since her last meal. “You’re prepared,” she remarked, of the sandwich, and the man replied, “My wife is,” with an appreciative nod at the now-empty Ziploc that he folded up neatly and returned to his backpack. So that was that, Leila thought, for the first time aware that the long-unused apparatus had begun to unfurl. Better fold that back up, like the Ziploc.

When the ferry came in, the tall man led her up its two metal staircases with their metal walls and diamond-plate treads, which still somehow conveyed the excitement of going to sea. Though he seemed to know he towed her in his wake he didn’t hesitate to use his long legs, and he didn’t glance over his shoulder—she had to hurry to keep up with him. Then they came out into the enormous indoor passenger area with its superfluous seating for hundreds and beautiful wraparound windows in the forgotten modernism of the late 1950s. Leila’s pulse quickened with pleasure. This was the kind of erstwhile sophisticated interior she and her husband had always sought out. The decades of their accord had lulled her into thinking theirs was everyone’s preference; but the tall man was making straight for the doors to the outer deck, and Leila didn’t even have time for a photo. Then they were standing together on a wide balcony spanning the bow, with the heavy green water spread around in an arc and the dark green landmasses crouched regarding the boat from their various distances. Leila couldn’t guess which landmass was which. She wished she’d studied a map. Around the port side she could see a pretty lighthouse she would have liked to go look at, but the tall man’s easy cooptation of her company somehow ruled out all such tourist’s behaviors. He was explaining his reason for coming, and just as, curbside back at the airport, his question to her had shocked her into alacrity, now the superior solitude of the ferry deck and the surrounding dark water shocked her into greater attention, as if her consciousness were being awakened by increments. From the corner of her eye she could see the couple in their matching raincoats gazing out through one of the rhomboid windows from the passenger area, but they didn’t venture onto the deck. No one did, despite the mildness of the wind. Leila asked the tall man a series of questions, and though his replies let her know that he’d explained much of this already, still she felt the satisfying tightness of the grip of her mind on the interesting problem, this stranger whose world didn’t overlap with hers in the least. It didn’t seem to bother him to tell her things twice. Suddenly she laughed—the laughter shook free of her without warning and only once it had did she fathom her reason for laughing, which she tried to explain as he smiled with surprise, not the least offended by the interruption.

“I didn’t realize we were moving!” she cried. The barely wrinkled green water lay around them like pavement over which the ferry rolled with imperturbable tires; it was only when she noticed that behind the tall man’s back, where he leaned against the rail facing her, the featureless crouching landmass had grown tall and sprouted houses whose individual features she could easily see that she was even aware they’d cast off. But how could she explain to him that it wasn’t just the smoothness of the ride but the feeling of herself magically transposed—as if lifted by a giant’s hand and smoothly set down again? “I mean, I didn’t even realize we’d started!”

“It’s not always like this,” he said. “We’re lucky to have a calm day.”

As Leila and the tall man headed back down he said, “What’s your heritage, if you don’t mind me asking?” It was the question she would have asked him if such questions weren’t, now, a minefield. Leila welcomed the question when it came from another brown person but would not have assumed other brown people felt the same way. She explained herself and, when he replied, “It worked out very well. Nice results,” wasn’t sure whether she was more pleased by the hint of flirtation or by the fact that, in seeming to flirt, he’d crossed a behavioral line that enabled her to feel faultless when she asked the question back.

“Oh, that’s an interesting story,” he said. “White father and Native American mother—or so my mother claimed. It turns out—”

There had been many other divagations, in the course of which they dropped off the raincoat couple at a rent-a-car and rocketed on down the narrow highway that lay like a trench between black pines and beneath a dull sky. Leila was aware she felt stirrings of dread when the van stopped again abruptly and the driver hauled the side door open. “Freeland,” he called. This was Leila’s stop. Now her feeling was actual panic, as she groped toward the rectangle of light and the driver yanked her suitcase from the rear and dumped it onto the pavement.

“I didn’t get your name,” she tried to say casually over her shoulder as she managed the awkward step out of the van.

“Lance. I didn’t get yours.”

“Leila.” No sooner had she spoken her name than she doubted her understanding of his. Lance? Like a spear?

“Leila?” a new voice asked—her ride to the colony. She turned toward it as if not feeling what she felt, and the minivan was gone so quickly that even her sense of its absence seemed foolish.

Illustration by Seo Kim

Illustration by Seo Kim

The colony was only for women. Leila had learned about it from a colleague years before and had held off applying perhaps due to some unease or shameful snobbery, perhaps the same internal impediment that had kept her from admitting that her marriage was afflicted by all the same problems about which her girlfriends complained, until it was too late and the whole worm-eaten edifice turned to powder, leaving hardly a trace of the two decades it had endured. When this happened her scruples (or whatever the obstacle) vanished, and she applied to the colony and was admitted for a few weeks, almost eighteen months into the future. She couldn’t imagine what good it would do her then. But when the time arrived in fact no part of her catastrophe had been resolved. She could barely pack, not from reluctance to go but from the sense she was running toward refuge from a fire or a flood, and packing was a superfluous nicety. Why bother to bring anything?

Now, though, the reality of the colony began to take form like so many bands circling her chest, one for each rule her greeter explained. There was no internet as this disrupted solitary meditation. Cell coverage was very poor throughout the island and nonexistent at the colony, but should she miraculously find herself with service, it was asked that she desist from making or receiving calls on the property, as this disrupted solitary meditation. There was no meat served on the property nor television watched nor perfume worn, given certain sensitivities; the rustic accommodations were exceptionally beautiful but, it seemed, equally fragile; the prefix phrase “we ask that” recurred like a mantra: “We ask that you leave shoes outside on the mat and walk only barefoot or in slippers or socks in the cabins, as the fir floors get scratched,” said her greeter. “We ask that you use the provided towels to wipe dry the walls and floor of the showers after each use, to inhibit mold growth. These towels are only for wiping the shower; they’re not for your personal use. You did bring your own towel, right? We ask that you place nothing on the windowsills; the lovely wood they’re made of is easily damaged. We ask that you descend from the sleeping loft facing the stairs, with both hands on the railings; we’d hate to have you fall. We ask that you abide by the quiet hours of ten p.m. to seven a.m.; please no music between those times. The cabins might be widely separated but in these quiet woods noises carry. We ask that you take the time to read the reflective words of the residents who have preceded you, which are recorded in these notebooks, and that you record your own reflections for the women who follow; you’ll want to do that in the most recent volume, which is number fifteen. Please don’t write in any of the other ones even if you find a blank page. We ask that you try not to leave a blank page between the end of your predecessor’s reflections and the beginning of yours, the way some of the women have done. It wastes space in the notebooks. We ask that you arrive promptly to meals, read the fireplace instructions with great care, move no items of furniture. We ask that in the garden you feel free to pick flowers but not vegetables—if you want to have dinner.” Above all, no guest was allowed without the prior permission of all the other colonists—dinner was a good time to seek this—and no overnight guest, or man, was allowed, period.

“So only women can visit?” Leila sought to clarify.

“It’s a women’s retreat,” said her greeter, as if the implications should be obvious.

It was, of course, a sort of monastery—nunnery? perhaps “cloister” was the less religious term—and once alone in her cabin Leila understood that it had not been the rules themselves but the presence of the greeter that had felt like bands circling her chest. Something about that greeter reciting the rules had reminded Leila, yes, of her husband, regardless of the fact that the greeter had been a seventy-year-old woman with her silver hair piled in a bun. With the greeter gone, the rules shifted the nature of their encirclement. Now Leila regarded the flawlessly ordered interior of her cabin with such abject gratitude that her eyes overflowed; interestingly, an open box of Kleenex sat on every surface: one on the desk, one on the side table next to the armchair, one on the bedside table, and one beside the bathroom sink; four boxes of Kleenex for a cabin no more than two hundred square feet, a higher concentration than even in Leila’s therapist’s office. Leila sat down in the window seat, within reach of the armchair side table, and cried, luxuriantly ripping tissues from the mouth of the Kleenex box without regard for how many she used. We ask that. When had Leila, a popular teenager, a brilliant college student, a successful young woman, lost the ability to ask that her own existence be ordered in the way that pleased her?

Her hard cry lasted so long she became bored with it; she felt enormously better. She lugged her suitcase into the sleeping loft, where the chest of drawers was, and stood for a time wishing there were rules about how to unpack. In a monastery surely the monks had a place for each cowl or whatever it was. With some difficulty she unpacked her few, poorly chosen clothes with extreme care, as if each drawer were laid open for judgment by God. She descended again, facing the stairs with both hands on the railings, and then went for a walk in the woods. The woods were exquisitely beautiful. Leila wished for more rules to protect them—We ask that you not tread on moss, We ask that you pluck no wildflower—but perhaps it was the colony’s rules for itself that enabled the woods to remain so pristine. Once awoken to the need for such rules, everyone made her own.

The first thing she’d wondered about the tall man, Lance, was his age; she’d wondered about that even perhaps before she’d wondered about his heritage or ancestry or whatever was the currently palatable word. No, she’d wondered about the two at the same time. She had to admit it: she’d gazed on his brown skin, adjusted. Taut at the jaw, the slightest loosening under the ears. Dark hair barely dusted and perhaps that was only the light. He’d confounded her. When in doubt, she dialed down. No more than forty-five, she decided, then reminded herself this made him younger than her. As if he’d observed her internal debate he had told her, “My wife’s fifteen years older than me. She had the two oldest kids when we met. Then together we had Julia. I’m sixty-one; my wife’s seventy-six.” They had been climbing back into the shuttle to get aboard the ferry when he’d made this revelation, in front of all their fellow passengers, as if she’d asked him to provide credentials.

For the rest of their time together she’d tried to press his age onto him like a hat. It was cheering how poorly it fit. Everything about him seemed youthful: his bright eyes, his hawk’s nose, his plentiful dark untrimmed hair, his leather jacket, the wrought-iron pendant he wore on a thong around his neck. Yet at the same time he was reassuringly adult: the jacket’s leather was supple and unstained, and the reading glasses he’d briefly put on while searching his phone for the photo of the boat were far more stylish and expensive-looking than Leila’s own readers, which she had bought at the grocery store. Strongest evidence of all, his teeth were the faint yellow of aged ivory: they lent the rest of the illusion authenticity. Like the ferry Leila had not felt transporting her over the water, Lance perhaps moved through the world without friction, aging at a fraction of the usual rate. Transplanted into fiction his appearance would be as implausible as his name.

“Ancestry.com,” he’d been telling her as they clambered back onto the shuttle and for the third time took their seats, for the final and shortest leg of the trip. The website had been how he’d found out that his maternal ancestors weren’t Native American at all, as his mother had always said, but African-American Creoles from Louisiana. Whether that information had been inadvertently lost or someone had covered it up wasn’t clear; Lance was still in the throes of his research. And not only that, but he’d found a whole branch of relations, descended from an illegitimate child of his grandmother’s sister. That pregnancy was a secret that no one had known until now, but they had all found one another, and they were having reunions. His own mother, aged ninety, who remembered her aunt, had been able to share stories of their ancestress with the grandchildren who’d had no idea, before now, what their background might be.

It had been this tale, frankly enthralling to Leila, that the shuttle driver had interrupted with his harsh cry of “Freeland!” and his violent yanking open of the minivan’s door. All that had welled up in Leila to say in response had tumbled back down her throat.

The reasons Leila’s marriage had failed seemed to multiply with every day since its extinction. Early on, despite the mental disarray of grief, Leila had felt she was able to describe the trouble fairly concisely. In retrospect, her concise description came to seem spurious. It might have been a product of self-delusion, or of false consciousness instilled by her husband, or even, paradoxical as this seemed, both. Every aspect of the marital reality now seemed the product of her feeble subjectivity: perhaps she and her husband had not even liked midcentury modern interiors. Perhaps only her husband had liked them and she had pretended she did, to please him. Perhaps she had liked them and he’d humored her. Perhaps no one had liked them and it had all been a misunderstanding. Perhaps their experience of love—if they had even experienced it—had been a misunderstanding as well.

At the women’s retreat, Leila floundered. She couldn’t seem to break through the skin of the place. It was a perfectly translucent skin through which she could see the stately trees, the charming cottages, the dewy flowers, the serenely smiling other women, but she could not pierce that skin, could not seem to get on the right side of it. She found more and more pretexts to loiter in the retreat’s library, where one afternoon, on her fourth or fifth day, her non-reading was disturbed by the sudden entrance of a woman—a visitor from nearby, it turned out—who said, “Look at you, so serene! At least there’s one place around here that’s not crawling with wooden-boat tourists.”

It took Leila a moment to grasp why this sounded familiar. It had been a wooden-boat festival, on the next island over, to which Lance had said he was going. Until now it had not crossed her mind that this event might be real. It had not crossed her mind that a mere call to a cab company, such as she made the next morning, then a mere ferry ride, would bring the festival under her nose before she’d entirely decided to go.

She still hadn’t entirely decided to go when the festival greeted the ferry far ahead of the shoreline; of course, it was a boat festival—it would be taking place largely out on the water. Up and down the ferry railing under the early morning sun Leila’s fellow passengers crowded to see the small boats on the mirrorlike water. Then the boat Lance had shown her on his phone appeared alongside a pier. Leila recognized it so easily that she doubted herself. What had she remembered from that photo? It seemed unlikely she would have recalled that it was a three-masted boat with a midnight-blue hull, but as if to remove any lingering doubt, a strikingly tall dark-haired man strode down the pier toward the boat; then the angle of the ferry’s approach made this view disappear. Leila found herself alone at the railing. The ferry was docking; the other passengers had already gone down. Leila reminded herself that nothing she was doing was wrong, that her husband had left her eighteen months ago and, though he was still living in the guest room, he had hired a lawyer. She had hired a lawyer, too, and her lawyer, a woman, had said to her, Go forth and date. Even that had been six, eight, or ten months ago. Leila couldn’t remember.

Onshore she drifted among the tables and stalls as if she’d never seen the boat and Lance at the end of the pier. It was a painfully charming Victorian seaside town; everything Leila laid her eyes on was like the life-size version of a toy of an aristocratic child of times past, as if she’d stepped into the nursery of, who was it, perhaps those moody jerks from Brideshead Revisited. As if to twist the knife of nostalgia for a past never lived, a brass band performed on a bunting-draped stage, whittlers whittled, scrimshaw was displayed. There was also no shortage of twenty-first-century culture, of displays on behalf of endangered orcas or opportunities to buy vegan food, but these only increased Leila’s sense of dispossession. She would rather have lived long ago. At least then the world wasn’t so obviously ending. Thank God, here was exactly what she needed: a very esoteric guide to tying knots (Aidan) and a fold-your-own-fleet paper kit (Dashiell); they would even fit into her suitcase. Clear as a dream, she saw her suitcase flying over the railing while she stood on the ferry with Lance; saw its blunt corner dent the dark water, the water recoil and spring back, the suitcase regrettable jetsam rapidly shrinking and then lost in the wake. That hadn’t happened. Extremely carefully Leila stowed her purchased souvenirs for her two unforgotten children in the most sheltering part of her backpack and suddenly knew Lance had strode rapidly down the pier because he was departing.

Yesterday, out the window of her cottage, she had seen a chickadee bouncing around the branches of a fir like a freshly whacked pinball. Now her heart was behaving this way. Leila quickly walked toward the water, seeming to bump into something—a table, a person, a trash can—at every step. A premonition of old age—her poor parents were like this, they drove to the Y every morning to slow-motion walk in the pool to maintain their balance. But how ironic it was that they drove there—they must have paid bribes to renew their licenses; one of these days they’d wind up in a ditch. Or worse. Leila flying to visit them monthly, unable to talk them into moving closer to her and now, with her impending pennilessness, having to consider moving back in with them—but her husband would never allow it. Shared custody; his job was in New York. It was already a foregone conclusion that they would have to sell the old house they had worked so hard on, side by side, stripping the paint from the doorframes.

Halted on the waterfront walkway, buffeted on all sides by festivalgoers, Leila could not see Lance’s boat but knew it had to be off along the water to her left, as the ferry was off along the water to her right. She would turn right. It was not even lunchtime. She’d forgotten, disembarking, to check the return schedule, but it didn’t matter; she would go back to the ferry and wait. “So you decided to check it out,” said a friendly and unsurprised voice. “Great timing. Julia’s all rigged and ready to go.”

In memory she’d smoothed out some of the minor irregularities of his face, slightly diminished the true dimensions of the beaklike nose, but he was otherwise exactly as he’d been however many days before. It must be some trick of the brain, perhaps particularly on its guard against abrupt variations, that made this man with whom Leila had only ever spent ninety minutes less than one week before seem so hyperintensely familiar when the face of Leila’s own estranged husband was mush in her mind. Though it was less how Lance looked that was familiar than his affect—his affect, in fact, of finding Leila so familiar. As before he seemed to feel entirely assured of her company. Hurrying again to follow him, she wondered if in fact during their prior conversation they’d made a date she’d forgotten for her to come and see his boat? But he strode not with impatience, just that same unrestrained, unconscious speed of a long-legged person. “So we’ve had a looooot of work to do,” he was telling her as if resuming a complicated conversation in which she’d been a fully educated participant. Was it men who were mostly like this? Voluble rivers of action and thought? No, that was ridiculous. Leila knew plenty of women who were rivers of action and thought, carving paths with their waterweight and not caring a twig if the flotsam flowed with them or not; and as well she knew plenty of men who were inactive flotsam. Now Lance, whose outpourings had not paused while she pondered their nature, was handing her onto the boat—Mind the cleat—she wouldn’t believe this but the people he’d entrusted this boat to had neglected or misunderstood but in a way it had all turned out better because of thesepeople his usual kismet particularly the thing with his wife and the whale. So what did she think? Of the boat. Maybe improved for her misadventure?

“What about your wife and the whale?” Leila asked, struggling to follow.

“That dream she had that I told you about on the shuttle—the mother whale with two calves? In the dream the mother whale tells my wife, The whales need you! My wife says, I’m headed to Haiti, where the poor people need me, are these whales in Haiti? Should I cancel my trip? My wife has a history of visions and premonitions. I could tell you some stories. Anyway, after lots of debating she goes through with her trip to Haiti, I come here, Julia’s a fucking mess, the people I left her with didn’t know what they were doing, but luckily the best riggers in the world are all hanging around here all week, I get busy but these things can’t be rushed, I’d originally planned to leave Tuesday but I’m still here Wednesday, yesterday, when the orca-watch people come into the bar where I’m having my lunch. It turns out, their whale-spotting boat has been rammed by these right-wing assholes and they can’t do their annual count. There I was, on the brink of being done with outfitting Julia to sail her down to Big Sur, where I happen to not have a berth. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with her, and then here came the orca-watch people. I said, Here’s your boat. When I called my wife, she just couldn’t stop laughing. She said, Why didn’t the goddamn whale mother appear in your dream? And I said, Remember how I never remember my dreams? That whale mother had to leave me a message with you. So I’m off to Orcas tomorrow,” he concluded. “Want to come?”

“Me?” Leila exclaimed when it was clear, from his expectant silence, that he was not only finished telling his story but had actually asked her this question.

“Yes, you. Aren’t you looking for something like this?”

“What would make you say that?”

“People find their way to us, my wife and me, all the time. People who are looking for something, or who just need to be somewhere. I thought that might be your situation. To be honest, I thought that you might be the whale mother. You have two sons, right? In my wife’s dream, the whale mother had two calves. Sometimes my wife’s dreams are symbolic, not literal.”

The boat—Julia—was shifting subtly and rhythmically beneath them; even still water can never be still if it’s part of the ocean. Leila unprecedentedly perceived that the ocean was truly one body, lying beneath the eyes of her children as they rode the Q train over the Manhattan Bridge to school in the morning no less than it lay against the hull of Julia, atop which she now sat. Connecting Leila to her children and to whale mothers and calves and all the other millions and billions of creatures suspended in ocean translucence like the raisins and grapes Leila’s mother suspended in quivering rings of grape Jell-O, which had been, in her ignorant girlhood, Leila’s favorite dessert. She’d liked the way light passed into the Jell-O and picked out the resident fruits. Running away on a boat with a man to save whales wasn’t something any actual person, certainly not any middle-aged woman with two children and an estranged husband, did. Running away on a boat with a man to save whales was the sort of thing a highly privileged, self-indulgent, insufferably youthful sort of person did. Anyone who did something like this was a person Leila envied and loathed. “Did you ask your wife if she thought I was the whale mother?” she asked challengingly. He couldn’t possibly be here, tall, lean, brown, ludicrously capable, standing on a storybook boat on the mirrorlike sea on a paradisal day in an island chain just offshore of the sunset, offering to transform her existence.

“I did, the day I met you. Actually, I texted her, because her service is so shitty in Haiti. My text said, Maybe the whale mother isn’t a whale? Then she called the next day and we talked about it.”

“Talked about it how?” Leila said, with the sense that she was driving him into a corner.

“I told her about our connection.” After a moment he added, “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.”

“You told your wife about our connection?” Just like that, she had acknowledged it.

“My wife and I opened our marriage a long time ago. It works well for us.”

Was this something people did? Had Leila, running the rat race in New York for the past twenty years, entirely missed a revolution in social arrangements?

“And did she—did she think I was the whale mother, or not?” This was cowardly and evasive; now it was Leila who was cornered.

“She thought you’d come to me for a reason. Whether or not you were the whale mother, we were taking a wait-and-see attitude. We’ll know when we need to.”

She hadn’t meant for her laughter to sound so derisive. “I’ve never known when I need to. I’m not sure I believe people can.”

Lance turned away from her for so long she thought he might be receiving Morse code from the shore. He was apparently thinking. His profile was extremely unusual, like shale roughly hacked with a hatchet. Despite the severity of the outline there was something boyish about his face in profile that was maybe the absence of judgment. He seemed genuinely puzzled by what she had said. “Most people are at a total loss when there’s nothing important to do,” he said finally. “We’re not supposed to be totally idle and cared for—even kids shouldn’t be totally idle and cared for. It makes them depressed. I think your problem is that you’re punishing yourself for the completely normal feeling of wanting something important to do.”

Before she left, they exchanged numbers, and then—as had so many of the women at the retreat upon first meeting her, as if there were no more mundane salutation—he embraced her. But he was so much taller—so much larger overall—than those women. His body blotted the sun. Her cheek, pressed to his ribs, was indented by the mallet of his heart. She wondered if this was his resting pulse or if his heart was agitated. She couldn’t tell.

“There’s no obligation,” he clarified as he released her. “Only come if you want to.”

“I’ll text either way.”

“You don’t even have to do that. If you’re here tomorrow, you’re here.” It was all up to her, then, as she knew it must be.

At dinner that night the other women were delighted with her fraudulent story of having gone to the wooden-boat festival just because it had piqued her interest. So celebratory were they of her little excursion that she understood how obvious her floundering had been to them, yet she wasn’t embarrassed. Something had changed in her on the trip back. Their praise bounced against her like blows off a drum—she felt taut and resonant and dominating.

After dinner she slipped off to the field where she’d found she could get a clear signal. It was past ten at home—the boys would be in bed, but it would be better to have his entire attention. He said, irrelevantly, “Where are all those women you’re supposed to be retreating with?”

“You think they’d take your side? Is that really how smug you are?”

“Leila, if you run off on a boat with some man, you will lose custody of your kids. Do you hear what I’m saying?” She couldn’t even listen to him, his knee-jerk condescension. Into her silence he added, “You’re having an episode.”

You’re having an episode,” Leila replied automatically. It was such a mistake to have called.

“I’m not having an episode,” he said with the same infuriating composure. “I’m making tuna salad for the kids’ lunches tomorrow, I’m going over Dashiell’s math, I’m ordering all the shit Aidan needs for his science-fair project, and I’m waiting to switch laundry into the dryer.”

“As if you’re a hero for doing it! Who did it for the ten years before you left me?”

“Go to sleep, please. Enjoy your retreat. Try to make use of it.”

Screaming Fuck you! into the phone would only bring the retreat women fluttering into the field. Lost would be her brief moment of triumph at dinner. Lost would be that sensation, so novel, that she knew what she wanted, that there was nothing more simple to know.

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is the author of five novels, most recently Trust Exercise, which received the 2019 National Book Award. Last year she also published her first book for children, Camp Tiger.

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The Skinning Tree

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The Interpretation of Dreams

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Dearest Lizzie

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